Situational Leadership II & Empowerment


It struck me recently (during the delivery of a workshop) that empowerment was something that many managers aspired to with their people but very few could say they had actually achieved.  Indeed one, particular manager noted that she had ‘no chance of getting to empowerment’ going on to say that ‘my lot are a very needy bunch.  They always need my help with something or other’. 

Being a true believer in Situational Leadership II® and its principles and practices I have a clear but slightly different view on empowerment.  Before I explain why my view is different there’s a little SLII® background needed…

SLII® - Whole-person empowerment vs task-based empowerment

One of the fundamental principles of situational leadership is that you adapt your leadership style at the ‘task’ level not just for the individual or team.  In this context, a ‘task’ is not clearly defined – it is for the leader to decide how she or he breaks down a job role into its constituent parts or ‘tasks’.  I believe that many managers do not get to the level of granularity that is needed for SLII® to be fully effective.  Therefore, they will find it challenging to see empowerment even though it is there – they are looking for ‘whole person’ empowerment or (in SLII® terminology) someone who is a ‘self-reliant achiever’ for everything that they do – fully committed, fully competent. 

Going back to my manager with her ‘needy bunch’ – my question to her was ‘what decisions do they make every day without asking you for help?’  She thought for quite some time and her face changed before she answered ‘Probably hundreds….interesting’ she said.

SLII® - No Empowerment? Is it your leadership or their lack of confidence?

The short answer is – it’s probably both but which comes first?

SLII® leadership styles are defined by levels of direction (just high or low) and levels of support (again, just high or low).  When combined they give four leadership styles and it is the effective application of those styles that helps with the journey to task-specific empowerment.  Figure 1 shows these styles and an interesting ‘take’ on what each style means in terms of leadership behaviour.

Having completed many, many Leadership Behaviour Evaluations it is very apparent that, in the UK, there is a significant skew in terms of preferred style towards coaching and supporting.  Many would (and have) argued that the skew is a good thing; good to be supportive.  Up to point, I agree.  However, if you’d like your people to stop asking for permission and start talking you through the decisions they’ve already made then that level of support must be reduced.  Something many managers perceive as counter-intuitive!

Fig.1 – SLII® Leadership styles – journey to empowerment              

The ‘switch’ for empowerment is that located at the point at which, for any given task, the leader chooses to trust.  At that point direction is low, support is low, trust is high and empowerment is achieved – at the task level. 

My conversation with the manager continued – ‘So do you still think they’re a needy bunch if they are making hundreds of decisions without your input?’

‘I guess not’ she smiled. ‘but they still ask me for help and it takes up a lot of my time’

SLII® - Risk and empowerment

Clearly, there will be things that leaders cannot fully delegate – there needs to be some level of ‘authorisation’ to manage high risk work types.  The key to understanding that SLII® still stands up here is to recognise that delegating ‘style’ is low direction not no direction.  It is perfectly acceptable to set clear parameters at the beginning and to require ‘approval’ at the end of a given task and remain squarely in delegating style.  The clearer people are on what is within and what is without their authority level, the better.

My conversation continued as I asked ‘So of the things that they ask for your help with, which ones would you not be happy for them to make the decisions or take action without you?’

After a few moments of thought she said ‘Ah! They’re mainly things that need to be perfect before we can send them out to client or other departments’.

‘So, you’d only need to provide ‘help’ if their work is not ‘fit for purpose’ I observed. ‘If they’re good to go they just need you to approve the work and say thanks?’

‘That’s pretty much what I do now’ she said.

‘So if you remove the things you have to be involved with, and you acknowledge that they’re making many decisions without your help, how much of what they do is left? I asked.

‘Not much to be honest’ was the unsurprising but very welcome reply.

I was intrigued.  ‘Have you ever asked them how empowered they feel?’  She showed me her note book that she’d been scribbling on during our conversation.  It said, in large capitals ‘ASK THE TEAM ABOUT THEIR LEVEL OF EMPOWERMENT’.  The word ‘level’ had been circled many times over.

SLII® - ‘Empowerment is not binary’

Hopefully, you can see that SLII® shows us, as leaders, that to say someone is or is not empowered is pretty meaningless.  Rather it is better to think of overall empowerment as the sum of all the things an individual or team does that they are trusted to do autonomously.

When I began to write this piece I realised that I hadn’t been in touch with the manager since our conversation so I called her and asked how things were with her ‘needy bunch’.  She laughed and said ‘you’ll be interested in my conclusions Lawrence’.  I was interested, but I was also embarrassed I hadn’t realised what she had.

‘When I think about my own level of empowerment it’s a variable thing - you know – a percentage.  When I’ve thought about my team in the past it’s always been a ‘yes/no’ question.  Empowerment is not binary is it?’ she reflected. ‘They’re not needy at all.  Thanks for all your help.’.

SLII® - The big challenge

In all my conversations with managers over the years the main barrier to achieving empowerment, even when they understand it is task specific, is letting go and truly trusting.  I suspect it is true that of the very many managers who think empowerment is a good thing, relatively few of them actually make conscious changes to the way they communicate and behave in order to achieve empowerment.  SLII® is clear on this, if you want to develop your people to the point at which you are no longer required you have to adapt your leadership style to match their stage of development.

And it is task specific!